24 Nov 2009
Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall
There was a certain inevitability about the build-up to Iestyn Davies’ recital at the Wigmore Hall in London last Wednesday.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
There was a certain inevitability about the build-up to Iestyn Davies’ recital at the Wigmore Hall in London last Wednesday.
Rather like an old-fashioned steam train, slowing gathering its strength, this English countertenor’s career has been going steadily on the right track for the past three or four years, and at the Wigmore he arrived at an important station in that career journey.
The very fact that he was included as the only English representative in the Wigmore’s long-awaited (some might say too-long awaited) international series of recitals devoted to the best of the countertenor voice speaks volumes for his growing reputation. It will be fascinating to see how this series works out and how right Davies is when he predicts that, in the near future, the voice type will be finally recognised by all as possessing all the different fachs that it does: from the lower altos/haute-contres, through the mezzo-soprano range, up to what have been termed, somewhat disparagingly by some, as “sopranists”. He hopes that the generic term “countertenor” will be, before long, as useless to music directors, producers and conductors as is “soprano” or “tenor” when deciding on roles and recordings.
The recital was, in one way, traditional fare for a countertenor of any age — he stuck to the 17th and 18th century repertoire that included some elements he must have been familiar with from his early days at St. John’s, Cambridge where he was grounded in the ways of English collegiate choral singing at its best. Yet, in another, he was also essaying fresh ground by choosing some composers and works which, to put it kindly, aren’t on everyone’s CD player. Leo’s Beatus Vir, for instance, and the younger Scarlatti’s Salve Regina.
Another surprise, and even less welcome, was the size of the Concerto Copenhagen, directed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, uncomfortably squashed onto the tiny stage, and sounding just too loud for that finely-tuned acoustic. Iestyn Davies’ first piece, the Alma Redemptoris Mater, by Hasse (another work truffled up from the archives) suffered from this aural imbalance as all the performers struggled for some compromise. Judicious culling of the instrumental line-up would have been advisable in the circumstances. His slight boyish figure and slightly worried expression did nothing to alter the feeling of him being slightly swamped — however his warm, technically secure and even tones gradually achieved a kind of balance, if not an ideal one. By the third section of the antiphon Davies was able to show some limpid phrasing and long-breathed lines, not to mention a beautifully judged messa di voce.
The band followed this with a concerto grosso by Locatelli, that many-skilled, well-connected jobbing composer more famous today perhaps for his woodwind works, and they skipped neatly through it nearly, but not quite, convincing us that this was not “baroque by the yard”.
Davies returned to complete the first half with some music that everyone in the hall could probably sing along to by now, it being virtually a right of passage for all young countertenors: Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, RV621. This was obviously a piece that Davies had lavished great care and thought on — his was a slightly stern reading perhaps, almost over-careful in the delicate ornaments, and certainly not a passionate rendering to engage religious fervour (or lay for that matter). Here, thankfully, the band were held in check by Mortensen and the score’s limpid transparency duly observed and the voice given its deserved place. An interesting programme note by Antony Burton revealed latest research as suggesting that Vivaldi did not write the piece for one of his orphaned girls at the Venice Ospedale after all — rather that it was commissioned in 1712 for a mainland church to be sung by either castrato or falsettist (or countertenor as we more agreeably know them today). Hopefully that information may quieten a few pouting mezzo-sopranos in the early music field.
After the interval, we were introduced to yet another undiscovered nugget from the archives, the Beatus vir by Leonardo Leo (first half of the 18th century). It might have had a religious source, but Leo’s operatic Neapolitan roots definitely showed with some florid writing and intricate rhythms interestingly at odds with the gentle calm of the text. Unfortunately, despite Davies’ best efforts, it left us unmoved and with a growing sense of puzzlement as to the programme choices. His effortless virtuosity, command of line and colour, begged for better musical meat. It was followed by the better-known Concerto in G minor, RV157 where Concerto Copenhagen and Mortensen showed their own virtuosity to excellent and loudly-applauded effect. Precision, excitement, risk-taking — it was all there. Somehow, this seemed only to point up what we craved from the vocal performer and weren’t getting.
The recital (the wrong term really, more a concert format) ended officially with Iestyn Davies giving his best with Domenico Scarlatti’s Salve Regina — a work less well known than most of the father’s vocal achievements, and although with some beautiful moments, not, frankly, in the same league as the better known settings of this text. It was also transposed down for the alto voice (and Davies’ voice is certainly in that category, seeming to sit most happily between A and D') which did nothing for the overall effect, losing the transparency and lightness which the original soprano would have given it — it is a fairly lugubrious piece to start with. Nevertheless, once again, the singer worked wonders with line and colour, wringing every note of the text for meaning and expression. His technical surety and warm evenness throughout the range, together with well-crafted phrasing, complemented the chromatic harmonies of Scarlatti’s sighing, weeping, score. His encore, unavoidably missed by this writer, was a short aria from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio — some say the best music of the night. However, that would not have surprised.
Having not heard Davies for some two years or more, this writer was impressed at how he has nurtured and burnished his vocal resources. What disappointed however was that, somehow, what should have been a real showcase of his undoubted talents, a setting out of his stall as a real contender in the world of top-flight countertenor singing, ended up too often as a pleasant, slightly academic, foray into musical might-have-beens. He spoke beforehand of how the voice-type has expanded and tested the boundaries: we didn’t see any of this on Wednesday night. He hopes for an ever-higher operatic profile (he has received some excellent notices already at ENO, in New York and in Europe) yet we saw little evidence of either a confident or beguiling stage persona. Hopefully, this type of “concerto seria” was something of a temporary siding en route, rather than a final destination.
We are likely to hear some very different, and hopefully more invigorating, fare as the series unfolds with Bejun Mehta, David Daniels, Lawrence Zazzo, Philippe Jaroussky and Andreas Scholl confirming what a golden age of countertenor singing it is that we live in.
Sue Loder © 2009